INDIANA (July 1, 2021) — According to a recent conservation survey, Indiana farmers have set a conservation record this year by planting an estimated 1.5 million acres of overwinter living covers, the largest amount ever recorded by an Indiana Conservation Partnership survey.

Overwintering living covers (i.e. – cover crops and small grains, like wheat) are known for their environmental benefits. Cover crops and small grains help increase organic matter in the soil and improve overall soil health by adding living roots to the soil more months of the year. Cover crops also improve water infiltration into the soil, while other covers, like legumes serve as natural fertilizers.

Although the conservation transect doesn’t differentiate between cover crops and small grains, Indiana farmers typically plant fewer than 200,000 acres of small grains annually, so cover crops vastly dominate the 1.5 million estimated acres. With the exception of corn and soybeans, cover crops are planted on more acres than any other commodity crop in Indiana. Cover crops are typically planted in the fall after harvest, and designed to protect the soil and keep roots in the ground throughout the winter, which improves soil health and helps filter water runoff.

“I want to congratulate Hoosier farmers for continuing to be a leader in conservation,” said Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, who also serves as Indiana Secretary of Agriculture and Rural Development. “By increasing our cover crop practices, we are keeping Indiana waterways and soil healthier for future planting seasons and the next generation of farmers.”

As a result of the cover crops planted last year, it is estimated that 1.6 million tons of sediment was prevented from entering Indiana’s waterways, which is enough sediment to fill more than 453 Olympic-size swimming pools. Overwintering covers also prevented 4.1 million pounds of nitrogen and over 2 million pounds of phosphorus from entering Indiana’s waterways. 

The conservation survey also showed that 62% of farmed acres were not tilled and 18% had employed reduced tillage after the 2020 harvest. This early spring survey is not intended to quantify pre-planting tillage.

“This year’s data may be surprising to some considering the tough farm economy this past year. But over time, our farmers have learned that incorporating a comprehensive management system into their operation that includes cover crops and no-till/strip-till have helped improve the sustainability and productivity of their soils,” said Indiana State Conservationist, Jerry Raynor. “As a result, farmers are sequestering more carbon, increasing water infiltration, improving wildlife and pollinator habitat—all while harvesting better profits and often better yields.

Indiana State Department of Agriculture Director Bruce Kettler is excited to see what the future holds for soil conservation in Indiana. “Soil conservation remains strong in Indiana and this recent survey proves that Hoosier farmers go above and beyond in their best management practices to increase soil heath,” said Kettler. “I am optimistic that this trend of increasing cover crop acres will continue for years to come.”

Elkhart County’s Gold Medal Olympic Cover Crop Performance

With the Olympics scheduled to begin in a couple days, the amount of sediment saved was compared to the Olympic size pool.  Now I will help you and save you the time of googling just how big is an Olympic size pool?  Well it is 164 feet long by 82 feet wide and 6.5 feet deep. The entire State of Indiana prevented 453 Olympic sized pools worth of top soil from entering Indiana’s waterways for 2020. Keep in mind there are 92 Counties in the state and if you do that math, it means each county saved five pools worth of sediment.

So now, I wanted to let you know how we compared here in Elkhart County.  The 2020 reported cover crop acres for Elkhart County were 19,813 acres.  Putting that into Olympic swimming pool measurements that is 12 pools worth of sediment not going into local Elkhart County waterways.   I am all about sizes and capacities but in the end there is always a dollar amount tied to all our activities. Therefore, from a dollar stand point Elkhart County had a $91,539 fertility savings to you the landowner. That means you kept that revenue on your land, you paid for it, might as well keep it and put it to use.  From a water quality benefit, we saved $214,899 in Elkhart County and beyond.  Thank you Elkhart County for saving more than 43,590 tons of topsoil this last year.  Your pocket book and our future generations will really appreciate all your efforts.

A Word From Jim

Wise words from Jim Hess, Elkhart County SWCD District Manager